WASHINGTON – If an alien had landed on the White House South Lawn on Tuesday during the signing of the peace agreements in the Middle East, he would have certainly thought this was the end of a long and bloody war. The rhetoric in the speeches, the strange Hollywood-like music, the trumpets, the general pathos, all screamed historic peace agreement. But where and with whom was this war? Certainly not with the Gulf states.
In this surrealistic scene, the representatives of four countries gathered – the United States, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain – to sign agreements and declarations of peace, which, as important and groundbreaking as they may be, and in many ways they certainly are, they did not end any actual bloody war. “Those who bear the wounds of war cherish the blessings of peace,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared. And he is right. But the wounds did not end on Tuesday.
True, symbolically, another part of the Arab-Muslim world officially accepted the existence of Israel. That is really no small thing. There is a turning point here that can also be called historic – alongside all the claims and the criticism about its motives and implications. But this part of the Arab world has not fought us for a long time, certainly not the type of battles that Netanyahu described emotionally as part of the horrors of war that he experienced. These exaggerated descriptions not only added nothing to the event – they even hurt it, in that they exposed out loud the hidden disparities in it.
And while they gathered in their pastoral bubble on the White House lawn to announce peace in the Middle East and an end to disputes that never were – rockets were launched at Israel from a very real arena, a reminder of the real conflict in the Middle East that no one has solved at all. But just as it was at the ceremony celebrating the American embassy’s move to Jerusalem, none of those present were particularly moved by breaking news reports about an escalation between Israel and the Gaza Strip. They were too invested in peace festivities. And no, this does not recall the Oslo Accords, where at least an attempt was made to reach peace with enemies. The agreements signed on Tuesday call for no deep sacrifices from any party, save for the freeze on land annexation in the West Bank and acknowledging the Zionists on the other side. That is why the collective sigh and appreciation that usually come with achievements paid for with toil and blood, which tend to pacify hawkish parties, were missing on Tuesday.
This is not the only jarring contrast between reality and the diplomatic make-believe at play in Washington. During the storm of applause that came as the agreements were signed, most of those clapping still did not know what they were cheering. In fact, until the last minute, and even after that, not one word of the agreement was shared with the public, in any of the four countries involved. At the time of writing, well after the ceremony ended, the contents have not yet been published.
The agreements with the UAE and Bahrain, and possibly with other countries down the line, are significant. Their importance should not be underestimated. They are opening a door to relations with moderate Arab countries that, at least officially and to the public, previously seemed permanently closed.
The current U.S. administration has managed to do something that its predecessors did not want enough, and perhaps even avoided. If you want to be particularly optimistic, this might later help to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians in indirect ways.
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It is too early to know what the contribution of the Gulf states will be. They want to believe they can serve as intermediaries and negotiators. Others, including the Palestinians, argue that the move has alienated and perhaps even completely torpedoed the prospect of a two-state solution, because it has removed one of the main incentives that could encourage Israel to move toward an agreement.
Only history will tell who is right. But one thing is for sure: When Netanyahu promises that the Abraham Accords can lead to “the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict once and for all,” he does not mean the real conflict raging in his backyard. With all due respect to their historic importance, these are “Declarations of Peace” with friends. The real challenge is still far ahead of us.